Questions about History and Culture – England 2022 #2

Day 2 – June 25

Waking up in Nottingham, we had to figure out our plans. Before we had parted the night before, I had declined John’s offer of attending a birthday party for the child of a friend of his so we were definitely Oxford bound, it was just a matter of how and when to best get there. We would spend the next few days staying with my old friend Amy and her husband Clive. I met Amy somewhere around 28-30 years ago when we both worked for the Groundlings in LA. I was a booth jockey and she was a stage manager. Since then, we’d kept in touch over social media, even managing to see each other once or twice since she’d moved to the UK. Now, she had graciously offered us all a piece of futon covered flooring in her craft room and we gladly took her up on the offer.

The only thing was we were horrible about firm plans. Both with John on Friday and now with Amy and Clive, I want to extend a huge thank you for rolling with our inherent travelling flakiness. In this case, it meant they changed plans from Saturday to Sunday to accommodate our earlier than anticipated arrival. This was because we had thought about trying to get to see Blenheim Palace on Saturday but the ticketing system was funky and we didn’t know if we could actually get tickets for that day, but we could get them for Sunday, so while we vacillated, our friends put up with us.

In the end, we stocked up on dry breakfast goods from the included breakfast bar at the hotel, stopped breathing while I maneuvered our family van out of the incredibly tight parking lot, and we hit the road around 9:30. The trip from Nottingham to Oxford, at 112 miles, was the longest single leg of our 9-day road trip, and it was filled with some incredibly narrow roads and beautiful scenery. By this time, Monki was getting the hang of being a navigator alongside Rasa, mostly making sure I knew what the speed limit was and not to go over it. All of which meant we made it to Amy and Clive’s place around 1:30 or so.

I had discussed with Amy that Monki wanted to visit a museum with dinosaur bones and mummies, and Amy went to work making plans for us! These plans included a hop-on/hop-off bus tour (where we could get off at the museum) so we could get a nice overview of the city. Unfortunately, as was the case with us in general, plans had to be reshuffled and changed on the fly. Here, the problem was that when we arrived, we sat around kibbitzing for a while before we left to go adventuring. That and Monki made a friend of Kiki, one of Amy and Clive’s three cats.

Clive paraphrased a story from a comedian talking about taking his kids to Scotland and showing them the beauty and majesty of the highlands and when asked what their favorite thing was, responded “Scooby Doo,” the video the kids had been watching in the car. For Monki, it seemed that the best part of everything was going to be playing with Kiki. So it took us a while to finally get out of the house, and when we did leave to take the car into Oxford proper to catch the tourist bus, it was already later than planned and traffic was insanely busy.

Instead, we just headed to Amy’s work parking lot (mighty convenient when it’s busy and crowded) and then walked from there to the museum. While it was a fairly long walk, it was delightful because we got a great walking tour of the history of the city. Between Amy and Clive there was a lot of background knowledge available. We walked through the Oxford Castle and along old streets with various Oxford universities and colleges. We made it past the some of The Bodleian Library buildings, including the famous one, the Radcliffe Camera (which, I admit, I always though was the library, not just a single building within the community).

When we got to the Museum of Natural History, I was a bit surprised. As we all know, I’m a huge fan of the Natural History Museum in London. It’s one of my favorite places and the design is just outstanding. Pictures I’d seen of the Oxford edition seemed like it took a page out of that design so when we walked in, it came as a shock how small it actually was. Even so, Monki was quite impressed. Her inspirational show for her interest in these things, Ridley Jones, included dinosaurs and mummies and, of importance here, dodos. It seems the dodo is the mascot creature of this museum, and on display is a skeleton as well as a taxidermied representation of the now extinct creature.

So Monki was able to see that, as well as the dinosaur bones. But the big hit was an actual meteor fragment which she could touch and make a wish on… which she did! She also pet a stuffed bear which was on display and touched a dinosaur bone. She really is an interactive kid.

Attached to the Museum of Natural History is the Pitt Rivers Museum, which is an ethnographic museum and absolutely crammed with exhibits. Amy and Clive told us how they had come there for research for one of Amy’s stories (both Amy and Clive are writers and Clive is also an award winning cartoonist) and I felt incredibly jealous this was literally in their backyard! There was enough inspiration for a thousand stories in that single room! Had I not been carrying a nearly 6-year-old with “really tired legs” on my shoulders, I could have stayed there much longer. As it was, we saw some really cool things and I’ve bookmarked the collections page on my web-browser for future reference!

Leaving the museums, we headed out to a local pub for dinner, where we were met by Amy and Clive’s youngest, Daniel. The pub experience was… less than ideal. For Monki, who doesn’t eat with much variety, there was little on the menu to please her. For Rasa, the whole pub thing wasn’t her speed at all. Since we were visiting at the end of term, the places were all crowded with students who had either just graduated or just sat exams and were all formally dressed and the overwhelming atmosphere was noisy and stuffed. Plus, the food wasn’t what she was expecting (and, for us, rather expensive to boot) so we left. We made a stop at a local mall to get some Krispy Kreme donuts and then a quick stop at a local grocery store to get breakfast foods and stuff for Monki for dinner before finishing out the evening with more wonderful conversation and much petting of the cats.

Day 3 – June 26

Today was the day we were going to hit Blenheim Palace. I’d figured out the booking system and so we prebooked our entrance tickets to the grounds and gardens, but not the palace interior itself, figuring that Monki was just not ready for a second day in a row of looking at exhibits. Now, the first thing you need to know about Blenheim is that it’s pronounced “blenem” not “blen hime,” a mistake I made until Amy corrected me. Also, it’s a “palace” and not a castle, home, estate, or anything else you might want to call it. Got in trouble for that one when we got there and I was asking directions from the parking lot, which, yes, was that far away from the entrance.

Evidently, the weekend we were there was a busy weekend indeed. We figured something was up when the GPS directed us to take a route which was overcrowded and causing serious traffic problems. The obvious workaround was to drive a little past where we were supposed to turn and then make a u-turn and come back, approaching it from the other side. We did this, except the first place to turn around was about a mile away, so that was a fun little detour, filled with plenty of shouts of “when can I turn?”

We also started seeing signs for the “Flower Festival,” which, it turned out, was being held on the grounds, so by the time we made it inside, the parking was covering a grassy field, and we were down in row “J”, parked next to a Tesla. The walk from the car to the front entrance of the palace itself, was about a kilometer and while it turned out we could have come the day before, we didn’t actually have to pre-book the tickets, it did save a little money, so it was all good.

Of course, by the time we made it inside, Monki was hungry so we popped in for a quick snack of some crisps for her and a pastry for Rasa and I to split. There was no available spaces to eat inside, so we grabbed a table out in the palace courtyard. While we ate, a duck sauntered by and then sat at Monki’s feet, waiting patiently for her to drop some food. This wasn’t the first duck we saw, either. One had come into the snack bar while we were paying for our purchases.

Outside, it was also rather windy so before Rasa and I could actually finish our pastry, the wind grabbed the plate and sent it, along with the last bite, flying. The paper plate hit some guy in the leg (I apologized) and the ducks grabbed the food, their patience paying off!

Fed, we headed out to see the gardens.

It was beautiful! This is the place where Winston Churchill was born so there was no absence of luxury around. There were fountains and boat houses, large statuary in the distance and manicured gardens to walk past. The grounds themselves were just massive and Rasa wanted to definitely check out the rose garden. This was a circular area, with each pie section filled with a different style of roses, all centered around a sculpture in the middle. Location-wise it reminded me of a story in a script Troy and I wrote many years ago about a statue magically turned into a rose. You have to read it. Anyway, we stopped there and spent some time smelling the flowers, just like we’re always told we should. Gotta be honest with ya, it was delightful.

The main reason the palace had entered our orbit, though, was they have a butterfly house, which Monki wanted to see, so that became our next stop. The butterfly house is located in the small, walled garden, where they also have a kid’s play area and a labyrinth (if you read this blog regularly, you’ll know we like hedge mazes).

The butterflies were nice. Not the best butterfly house we’ve been to, but it did its job of providing pretty little flying insects for us to gawk at. There was also a small koi pond in the middle of it, complete with coins littering the bottom. While I know this wasn’t Monki’s first experience with throwing coins into a pond to make a wish (we’d been to the Trevi Fountain after all), it might be the first she remembers, so I dug out a coin and she made a wish. Her wish, by the way, was to have a great time at Peppa Pig World, which was coming up in a few days.

Then we got to the maze. It was a hard one. We laughed as we got lost and went round in circles and eventually realized if we’d gone in the other entrance, we would have gone almost immediately to the center. Ah well.

By this time, we knew we should start heading back. Before we left the grounds, we passed a sign announcing the “secret garden.” Rasa wanted to check it out, but Monki was bored already so she and I played “rock, paper, scissors” (her latest obsession for killing time) while Rasa enjoyed the gardens.

Back at the main house, we were able to have a quick walk through the stables and got to see an old fire truck, which Monki found fascinating. Then, after another kilometer long hike back to the car, it was off to Oxford. Since the following day we were scheduled to go to Legoland, Rasa decided we should stop at a grocery store so we could make sandwiches and things. Good plan.

For Rasa, shopping at a local Aldi was an experience. She just enjoyed looking at the differences in food and other products, trying to find the stuff we like at home and mostly being disappointed that the cultural differences are huge. That said, she did discover digestive cookies, so that was a big plus for her!

We made it back to Amy and Clive’s not long after they returned from the errands they had delayed from the day before. By this point, it was dinner time (before I joined Amy and Clive and Daniel at their weekly pub quiz) so, after much debate, we headed off to The White Horse. The White Horse was a pub, but rather than one like the one we had been to the night before, this was more like a Denny’s with an English overlay. It was all good. They had things for everyone to eat. Clive ordered their food and before I could get in the order for our family, the kitchen closed due to a backup of some sort. We all just laughed about this and went back to the house to have pizza. It’s been a while since I had a good, thick pizza, covered with real toppings so honestly, I was in heaven!

With Dinner over, Rasa and Monki were going to stay home, do a little laundry and make food for the next day, while the rest of us went off to flex our brains. The pub quiz is held regularly at The Gardener’s Arms, a vegetarian place with classic rock albums on the wall. For Clive and Amy, this was a return since they hadn’t been live and in person since before the pandemic, but it was obvious they had been missed. Everyone greeted them by name and expressed delight in seeing them.

And the quiz…It was just hard enough. And it was fun! And we were a good team! And thanks to Clive’s amazing cartooning skills (and musical knowledge)…we came in first! Again, it made me a little jealous. I would love to have a nearby quiz with people who wanted to play. All in all, it was a great way to end the night.

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